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“My Heart Will Go On”

March 30, 2022

A number of you have asked me about the details of my recent heart surgery. Was it interesting? Was it terrifying? Was it fun? So as a public service I am providing this blog post on details of my day in surgery about one week ago. While the outcome was good and the surgery was successful, there were a few unexpected details that made the day “interesting”. However, apologies in advance for TMI (Hey Kathleen and Maryanne, I’m cool and I know that means “too much information”).

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Back in mid-November, at my annual physical, I was diagnosed by my primary care physician, Beth Weinstock, with a heart “flutter”. I had complained to her of having not felt well for the previous couple of weeks, so kudos to her for quickly diagnosing the problem. While a “flutter” sounds innocuous enough, if left untreated it makes stroke or a heart attack much more likely. Within 48 hours, I was on both beta blockers and blood thinners, medicine that my 97 year old mother takes NOW–never thought I would be taking these some 30 years earlier. After getting over the side effects of the beta blockers in 2-3 weeks, ( I described it as similar to how one feels physically when they fly into Aspen, CO from sea level for the first 48 hours), I settled down to my normal physical activity and was able to resume my daily walking and lap swimming. However, there was one main difference –which was positive from a medical standpoint, but negative from a social standpoint- I had to give up drinking alcohol as both medications made abundantly clear on the label –ALCOHOL IS TO BE AVOIDED. (However, I confess to flavoring tonic water with half an ounce of gin on a few days to at least be able to have one pseudo drink with presumably no ill effects).

After a long wait of four months, (heart surgery was very backed up due to COVID and medical staff retirements in the past couple of years) about one week ago on March 23rd, I had the second major surgery of my life—a “heart ablation” surgery. My heart surgeon and others at Riverside Hospital referred to it as “routine” and my surgeon had done hundreds if not thousands of these procedures. But “routine HEART surgery” sounds like the ultimate oxymoron to me–up there with “deafening silence”, “devout agnostic” and “alone together” among countless others. And I couldn’t help but remember what Woody Allen said in the movie “Sleeper” five decades ago (but in his case referring to his brain), “you can’t operate on the brain, that’s my second favorite organ”.

We checked in at Riverside Hospital just after noon. Anne received a regular guest ID paper bracelet in the main reception area; I got the more substantive, impossible-to-remove, hospital-patient ID, which is made of plastic and no doubt fortified with some titanium alloys. SO “impossible-to-remove” that I only remembered that it was still on my wrist almost 24 hours later, before I had to employ Grade A scissors to remove it.

At 12:30 PM, I was brought into a pre-surgery patient room where I was hooked to several monitors to measure my heart electrical activity, heart beat, blood pressure as well as an IV for hydration. (This latter part was REALLY important because since midnight the day before I was not allowed to have anything to eat or drink-including water- and my mouth felt like the Sahara desert, my head was throbbing (no coffee either!) ). As I was lying on that “comfortable hospital bed” (another oxymoron) which they had to add a special extender, I remember thinking “Am I really THAT tall–what happens when a member of the OSU basketball team comes in for a procedure?” do they add another extender?.

At the time, they had stuck many of the heart monitors on my side rather than on my chest which I found odd, until a male technician (or was he officially a nurse or assistant?) came in with an electric razor and shaved me from my neck down to my groin – on the back as well as the front- and then repositioned the heart monitors all over my chest. The nurse then noted that I still had my heart flutter -obviously the beta blockers had only helped somewhat. ( Part of me was secretly hoping that she would say “no heart flutter, surgery is cancelled. Go home and drink a six pack of beer”).

At about 1:30PM Anne was allowed to come sit with me until surgery, which was scheduled to start at 2PM. It did not start until much later. My surgeon Dr. Chopra finally came in around 3:20 PM and described the procedure (which fortunately I already knew about-so there was no shock and awe)–very thin sheath inserted in the lower-right groin area through a major vein which goes up into the heart -even thinner wire catheter inside the sheath that is used to ablate (or burn/cauterize) tiny areas of the heart which are responsible for the “flutter” (i.e. or to this former electric power professional, an over-firing of the heart’s electrical system with too much voltage for the heart to handle.). He noted I would be given IV medication to make me relax and put me in near twilight–not fully conscious– but not asleep either.

They wheeled me (on my bed) into surgery around 4PM. And as I was watching the ceiling whiz by, I couldn’t help but think that though my surgeon’s name is pronounced CHO-PRA, might be fittingly pronounced CHOP-YA. (and they hadn’t even given me any drugs yet!). Once in the OR, I was told the sit up and cold packs were placed all over my back (from my buttocks to the top of my shoulders). Apparently, they felt the 60 degree temperature in the OR wasn’t cold enough for me. After lying down on the OR table, they started to layer hot blankets on my legs and upper back, more patches on my chest, an tube for oxygen and an oxygen monitor on my nose, heart monitors , an automatic blood pressure cuff on my wrist, as well as countless other layers which I have no idea what they were for, except perhaps to make me forget how cold my back was. In fact, I felt like I was a three-decker club sandwich or perhaps a multi-layer enchilada or taco (see SNL pseudo commercial “Taco Town” from about a decade ago if you want to know how I felt). Meanwhile if I looked to my left I could see a very large wide-screen monitor–definitely good for sports viewing at home–which presumably had my vitals as well as the afternoon’s Daily Double results. At this point, they told me they would give me a little medicine to relax me.

Dr. Chopra arrived soon thereafter and explained again briefly what he was going to do. Then he along with his assistants (not sure who or how many) proceeded to give me a shot of Lidocaine in the right groin area (ouch!) then proceeded to make the incision to insert the catheter(s) (double ouch!), but the pain quickly subsided. Not sure what they were doing down there exactly but about 5 or 10 or 20 minutes later (?) (hard to keep track of time in my haziness) the catheter was up in my heart and apparently searching for the areas that needed fixing.

At this point, Dr. Chopra said he was ready to start the ablation and then made the classic doctor understatement “You may feel a bit of discomfort”. (Similar to when the pilot comes on the PA system and says we may be encountering “a bit of turbulence”, while passengers are vomiting and being scraped off the ceiling in the main cabin). As he started the cauterizing burners ( a motor-like noise so I knew he had done so), sharp pains radiated to my shoulder, neck, upper back and chest. Fortunately, this pain instantly receded when he stopped and each ablation was only about 5-10 seconds long. So I knew if I just dug my thumbnail into my other forefinger I could get through this.

Funny how the mind works, but I found myself thinking about having my teeth drilled at my dentist Dr. Kresge’s office when I was only 8 or 9 years old. He did not believe in novacaine at least not for his younger patients, figuring the needle was more traumatic than the drilling (Boy was he wrong! I should have probably nicknamed him Killer Kresge). However, I can remember his counting as he drilled but to no particular number so it wasn’t particularly helpful. I knew the pain would end when he finished counting but never knew if it was done at 6,8 or 10 or any other number for that matter. I found myself wondering if Dr. Chopra could tell me how long each ablation would last.

Finally, after probably only about 3-4 minutes but what seemed like an eternity, the ablation was over. A few minutes later they removed the catheter and placed pressure on the groin (ouch!) to stop the bleeding. Then we had to wait about 20 minutes to ensure there was no internal bleeding and to make sure the ablation had stopped the flutter.

After Dr. Chopra had left, unbeknownst to the staff, I began to hear the gossip (or was it the truth?), about the morning of surgery. Apparently without his knowledge, Dr. Chopra had to squeeze in another “emergency” surgery, and as a result mine was starting 2 hours late. He was very annoyed about all this and took it out on the nurses/assistants/anesthesiologist – or at least that is what I heard. So I gather he was still angry when I was doing MY surgery (Glad I didn’t know that beforehand!). Or maybe this was all a figment of my drug-induced haze?

At about 5:40PM I was sent back to a different post-op recovery room and was told to lie still and not move my right leg/side for three hours (in other words stay flat on my back). I was given some real food and water (yay!) and I was quickly reunited with my wonderful wife Anne (Anne added “wonderful wife ” to my original draft :) )who brought me a real sandwich (yum) to eat. At 845PM I was allowed to get up and walk to the bathroom and back, and having passed the test (not fainting I guess), was discharged shortly thereafter.

So that is my experience with heart surgery. Not exactly what I expected, but at least it was all over in ONE DAY. Now I am ‘resting’ at home awaiting the time I will be able to walk (for exercise) and swim again without a lot of pain. Many thanks for your notes and cards. “My heart will go on!”

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6 Comments
  1. Ed Kaufman permalink

    Great summary report, Bruce. Hope the ablation provides the intended long term results. All best, Dr. Ed

  2. Thanks Ed ….I appreciate it.
    Best, Bruce

  3. Joyce permalink

    Thank you for your sharing this procedure! Really interesting and hope you are out dancing now~~

  4. Thanks Joyce!

  5. Walter Kennedy permalink

    Very interesting read, Bruce! Glad it went well from a medical perspective, although there’s always some trepidation when you’re the patient. Hope you are healing well.

  6. Thanks Walt. To quote Chicago.. “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day”

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